A ‘Balanced Partnership’? Berlin Is Recalibrating Transatlantic Relations

Strengthening the European Union and building a “sovereign and strong Europe” has been the central rationale for both the Christian and the Social Democrats to enter into what once used to be a Grand Coalition government in Germany. The growing weight of powers in the Far East and the not-so-Far East and the concomitant return of great power politics compels Europe to reassert its own (for the time being lacking) power. This has become even more pressing with the advent of the new administration in Washington, which, according to the new German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, has created a “new strategic reality” – notably referring to Trump’s calling Russia, China and Europe as adversaries in the same breath. Angela Merkel’s ascertainment of last year that the US cannot anymore be relied on fully points to the same direction.

It is on this background that Maas in June launched a new initiative for an “Alliance for Multilateralism” which he has since promulgated time and again. With respect to the US the initiative calls for a “balanced partnership” in order “to regain latitude.” And it calls upon Europe to act as a “counterweight” where the US crosses “red lines” which certainly has a familiar ring in Moscow and is meant to contribute to greater balance in the transatlantic relationship.

The practical aim is aptly summed up in the statement “Our response to ‘America First’ is ‘Europe United’”. Building a Security and Defence Union and gradually drawing nearer to the French proposals for strengthening the Monetary Union are the building blocks. Both projects, however, hang in the balance. Whether the Defence Union one day really leads to EU “strategic autonomy” not only depends on (so far lacking) capabilities but also on the readiness to fundamentally reassess the “transatlantic security order.” In this regard Mass remains conspicuously undecided.

The “Alliance for Multilateralism” is much less ambitious. It is neither meant to become a new international organization nor an exclusive club or a proper alliance. Rather it is said to be open for every adherent to multilateralism from Asia, Latin America or Africa. So far agreements on that score have been achieved with Canada, Japan and South Korea.

What is the place for Russia and China in this strategy? Conceptually, there is not much of a place for Russia in the “alliance” as long as Moscow cultivates its newfound superpower obsession. This essentially follows the Trumpian pattern of unilateralism in international relations. Moreover, whereas Russia professes to put an end to the liberal – or rule-based – international order, Germany's initiative is meant to preserve it.

In practical terms the situation looks slightly different. The German call for a separate financial settlement mechanism, for instance, indicates that in some respects Trump helped the interests of both sides to converge. The same could apply to talks about European security in order to mitigate what ultimately justifies NATO and the US military presence in Europe: threat perceptions from the East.

To some extent this is also true for China, although there have been overtures on the part of Beijing with respect to jointly defending the liberal global trading regime. However, as long as China sticks to its classic developing country posture in its trade and economic policy, this will lead nowhere.

The “Alliance for Multilateralism” has a long-term and a short-term rationale. The changes within the US and in US foreign policy are considered fundamental and long-term. According to the German foreign minister it is therefore insufficient to just weather Donald Trump. But Trump has also given rise to the short-term rationale. When Berlin embarked on fighting Trump’s protectionism and the string of (levied and/or threatened) duties, it turned out that mustering broad support increases the prospects of success.

These two rationales converged at a broader conceptual framework which should have some potential. But limits have already become visible. When Canada’s foreign minister Chrystia Freeland called for German solidarity in her conflict with the Saudi Arab autocracy, Maas shied away from openly siding with Ottawa. This happened in spite of the fact that the German government has not that much to lose since it too has its proper share of disagreements with Riyadh (having led to the withdrawal of the Saudi ambassador in fall last year and the cancellation of a good number of business contracts).

To sum up: For the time being Maas’s initiative represents a modest departure from long-held convictions. However, in diplomacy such a departure can only happen step by step and questioning what used to be a kind of second nature to the German political class is at least a beginning.

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